Social-emotional learning activities
There are many ways teachers can incorporate social-emotional learning activities into their classes while covering all five SEL competencies and preparing students to gain the necessary skills for academic and life success. First, we will focus on individual activities, then look at how these can be integrated into a stand-alone social-emotional learning curriculum that fits the everyday opportunities of educators as well.
21 SEL activities for secondary school students
Social-emotional learning is a holistic approach that should flow into every aspect of children’s lives, including their schools, families and broader communities. With that said, there’s a growing pressure for educators to shoulder more of this responsibility, so we created a list of SEL activities for the classroom to inspire you. These activities are first and foremost suited for secondary school students but some may also apply to younger age groups.
1. Perspective talking
When discussing a book or a poem, make sure that students spend time talking about how the characters might feel and think in the story or a specific scene. Another option is to discuss how the author might have felt while writing the piece. Perspective talking can work well for movies, too, and in all cases, will help children analyse and understand the emotions and thoughts of others. It’s a great exercise for learning about empathy.
2. Managing emotions
Once you have students engaging in perspective talk, it’s a good idea to have them not only identify what the characters feel in the given moment of the story but how they manage their emotions, what their behaviour is like and if they change that to cope with the situation. Have students reflect on their findings through their own examples and experiences, ask them if they have found themselves in similar situations before or what they would do in the place of the character? This can help them review their past actions and visualise how they would like to act in similar situations in the future, making them more aware of their feelings and the possible effects of their actions.
The Positive Pivot Scale from Move This World can help students think about the range of ways they can respond to a single situation, on a scale from negative 5 to positive 5. They have to identify where they stand on the scale at the given moment and figure what they need to do to move forward.
The Positive Pivot Scale by Move This World
3. Solving problems independently
Students can often encounter challenges whether working on their own or in groups. As an educator, you should encourage them to try and solve the rising problem without your help. Depending on the setup, give them 15 minutes or more to think about the solution. If necessary, they can use help from a classmate. This activity can help students become confident in their own problem-solving skills while also feeling the support and trust coming from the teacher who’s giving them space (but is available and ready to help after those minutes are up).
The Rose, Bud, Thorn strategy can help students to find both positive moments in their lives and areas where they need support. The three elements they can think through and fill up a weekly template with:
- Rose: something positive, worth of celebration
- Bud: something they’re looking forward to
- Thorn: something they struggle and need help with
A related exercise is to answer the question: how can I turn a thorn into a rose?
4. Encouraging self-reflection
One of the critical social-emotional skills is self-reflection. Students should learn to reflect on their achievements and analyse how the process went, what they did right and wrong, and what they could change in the future to achieve an even better result. Teachers of all subjects, from Maths to History, should encourage their students to practice this skill and it should be fairly easy too, not requiring any materials or extra resources other than reminding them from time to time to reflect on their work.
5. Initiating smart teamwork
When students work in groups, you can teach them to assign the roles to themselves, instead of you deciding. This will help them think through the scope of the project and what portions of it should be performed by specific individuals in the group for the best outcome. They can discuss who would like to perform a given task based on how they feel that day or they can talk about their strengths and why that person would be the best choice to take care of that bit of the project. This way, students can practice cooperation and healthy conflict resolution and ultimately, learn how to build a community on a small scale.
6. Teaching the rules of group work
Group work is one of the earliest forms of cooperative learning exercises children will encounter in their lives. If they learn how to do it respectfully and give a chance to all participants to do their share and speak their minds, it will definitely help them reach success in social-emotional learning (and in their adult life).
Teachers should lead with some ground rules: making sure everyone is involved in the work, that nobody leaves the group until the project is finished or the problem is solved, or that everyone can have a say in how the group should operate and all members should have their opportunity to speak up. For this purpose, it’s especially important to have students sit in a circle that promotes equality and allows everyone to keep eye contact and have themselves heard. It might be a good idea to create a list of these rules and show it to students before the start of each group work session as a gentle reminder.
Photo by Alexis Brown
7. Learning to listen
Active listening skills are extremely important in group work and beyond the school walls too, whether we look at children’s families or their future working environments. Some tips to teach students in this area:
- Look at the speaker: making eye contact from time to time, tells them you’re interested in what they’re saying and paying attention
- Respect the speaker: try to keep your attention throughout their speech or whenever someone is talking to you — don’t look at other objects or people in an obvious way and never start doing something else instead of actively listening to them
- Use nonverbal communication: nodding your head can reassure the speaker that you’re listening and it can help the listener to stay engaged as well
- Use the mirror technique: you can reflect someone’s emotions to show them empathy, such as putting on a sad face or avoiding smiling when they share bad news or a sad story
8. Learning to disagree respectfully
Group work means cooperation and cooperation necessarily means conflict. Students will find themselves in situations where they won’t agree about everything with their peers and educators have a key role in teaching them how to express their feelings and thoughts respectively in such situations.
Whether it’s a debate or a simple teamwork exercise, other skills like active listening and respecting the speaker will help them have a solid grounding in this area. Other than that, they have to learn to differentiate between the person and the problem and to never attack the person, instead of focusing on treating the real issue. You can also teach them some ice-breaker sentences to use in case of a disagreement:
- “I hear what you’re saying. Could you go into more detail about how you arrived at this conclusion?”
- “What do you mean exactly when you say…?”
- “Let’s see if there’s an intersection between our arguments.”
POOCH is a framework for finding solutions to problems through considering possible options and outcomes, and can prove useful in social-emotional learning:
✓ P: identify the problem
✓ O: explore your options for solution
✓ O: discuss possible outcomes for each option
✓ CH: choose an option
9. Talking about diversity
It’s important for kids to learn about the background of their classmates, their cultural heritage and how that influences their everyday lives. This activity can take many forms. Students can work in pairs discussing their backgrounds or they can each hold a presentation in front of the class on the subject. Talking about diversity will help students understand that they are part of bigger communities and what that actually means. This will help promote tolerance and acceptance at the same time.
10. Students conducting interviews
Connecting to the previous point, students can talk about diversity or other topics, such as their future plans, in an interview setup with each other. This allows them to practice several other skills, including active listening and cooperation. The exercise can include a second round where each student has to present what they learned about the other which will also help in strengthening their empathy.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas
11. Promoting a growth mindset
Learning that we can reach our set goals with the mix of strategy and persistence is key knowledge for children and adults. For kids though, early intervention is crucial in this area: often they might feel that they’re not good at something and that is not going to change. For educators, it’s a strategic task to remind them that they have the power to turn things around, starting with assessing the problem at hand. By implementing a growth mindset, they will learn to see that Maths may be hard now but with a little time and dedication, they will improve.
12.Teaching SMART goals
The SMART method, learning to set specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based goals can help students in many ways. Whether it’s project work or a strategy for career planning that involves making a plan to attend a specific university or to pursue a particular subject, SMART goals can prove useful.
Teachers can offer help with planning the goals, identifying strategies with the students, as well as monitoring the progress and giving a hand in adjusting the workflow when necessary. The SMART system will provide structure and framework for children, reducing the chances of losing sight of what they want to achieve short- or long-term. This will teach them about the importance of planning, consistency and endurance, as well.
The WOOP method by Character Lab can be helpful for students in goal setting and developing an action plan:
✓ W: identifying your wish
✓ O: imagining the outcome
✓ O: anticipating the obstacle
✓ P: developing a plan
13. Learning to deal with stress
Stress is present in children’s life too, whether it’s related to homework issues, friendships or the prospects of starting university after secondary school. Strategically coping with stress can take many forms depending on the age of the child and their unique personalities.
Educators can share general advice on the topic in front of the class or bigger groups but in some cases, one-to-one guidance might prove beneficial for students who don’t necessarily like opening up about their emotions in front of others. As for the different techniques, the simplest approaches can work miracles:
- Encourage students to think about something happy
- Have them engage in positive self-talk
- Teach them breathing exercises or have them count backwards from 10
- Ask students to imagine what stress looks like in their body and ask them to release it
- Practice meditations, if the time and space allows, for example using an app that makes it more fun for younger age groups with meditational stories, such as Headspace
- Use the “circle of control” drawing exercise where inside the circle students write the things they can control and outside what they cannot, to help them accept their power and let go of anxiety
The STOP method can prove useful when students experience stress:
- Take a breath to calm down
- Observe the situation
- Proceed with the solution
14. Expression through art
Students can create any piece of art at home or school, a poem, a drawing, a painting, a collage or ceramics, whatever suits them and present it to their classmates. The goal of the exercise is for them to talk about why they chose that medium of art, and how the final piece reflects and represents them. This will help students to express their personality, thoughts and emotions, and strengthen their self-perception skills.
15. Creating a vision board
To express their goals and interests, students can create vision boards so that they can visualise their future: who they want to be, where they will work and what their family will look like, according to their present ideas. This exercise can prove particularly useful for students ahead of leaving for university and preparing for their final exams, making plans that will influence their future. Depending on what feels natural in the given class, students can choose to keep the board in class or take it home to look at it as a piece of motivation and something to keep them on track.
Using an engaging online platform like Xello, they can create their vision boards digitally, collecting all the images, and even videos and articles that inspire them, helping them identify their unique selves.
Photo by Rahul Jain
16. Writing it out
Secondary school students can be given more complex essay exercises that will help them with self-reflection and social awareness, and potentially every other social-emotional competency. The topics can vary greatly:
- What influences teenagers’ world views?
- How does reading fiction help with real-life character building?
- How do you define a healthy relationship?
- What can a community do for you?
- What was the easiest and the hardest decision you had to make in your life?
It can be a good, voluntary exercise to read these essays aloud in front of the class so others can hear what their peers have to say in the different subjects.
17. Presenting interests
Ask students to prepare a presentation about the topics they are interested in. If they can tie it to a current subject they’re learning about in class, even better. Our interests are a natural reflection of who we are so this exercise is great for self-expression, while classmates can also find new ways to connect with each other.
18. Promote positive self-talk
Encouraging students to practice positive self-talk can take many forms. It can be silent or verbal, using a list and combination of sentences to confirm their confidence and self-belief. Everyone can pick a statement in the morning to create a cheerful and constructive environment for the whole day.
Ideas for daily positive thinking:
✓ I am enough.
✓ I believe in myself.
✓ Today is going to be great.
✓ My positive thoughts create positive feelings.
✓ I am in charge of my own life.
✓ Today I choose to think positively.
✓ I can make a difference.
✓ I deserve to be loved.
✓ My challenges help me grow.
Another way to practice positive self-talk is through art: students can create their own self-portraits, writing encouraging and powerful thoughts around their profile. A piece of art that can go up on the classroom wall or something to treasure at home, but in all cases, it’s worth having it at hand, somewhere students can easily see.
19. Giving feedback in class meetings
Educators can organise weekly or monthly class meetings where students have the chance to share their ideas and problems regarding how the class operates and how they would make it better. This can be the forum to surface all their feedback, to solve any potential conflicts or to plan class events. Imagine this like a gathering of citizens discussing their town’s business. Class meetings can be augmented by online tools, such as by using Google Forms to provide space for anonymous suggestions and making sure that everyone’s voice is heard. Use the meetings to find solutions together with students.
20. Encouraging kindness
Kindness rules all times, especially random acts of kindness. Encourage students to share when they notice someone being kind and have the stories collected offline (in a box or bin) or online (in a form where they can stay anonymous). These can be brought up in class meetings, congratulating the person and saying thanks. Children are especially prone to imitation, so seeing how others act around them will imminently influence their own behaviour.
Photo by Jeswin Thomas
21. Creating an SEL-approved classroom decoration
Classroom decoration can be a powerful teaching and learning tool; it can be especially useful as a means to promote social-emotional learning. Use those classroom walls to put up:
- A social-emotional vocabulary: with suggested phrases to use in different situations, let it be about complimenting someone, resolving conflicts or statements for positive self-talk
- Everyone’s personal mantra: this can be changed during the year as often as a student sees it fit and they can create this poster in the style they like
- The quote of the day: this can be an empty frame with a quote or written on a chalkboard that changes every day or week and helps students concentrate on a project or acquire specific SEL skills they are working on in that period
- The class contract: an unofficial document that contains the teacher’s expectations and the student’s hopes and plans for the school year